Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Iowa (and everyone else) has not decided yet

Currently, the mainstream media has identified two front runners for their respective party's nomination in the upcoming 2008 race for the presidency. This is based on polling, which has Sen. Hillary Clinton sitting atop a big national lead among Democrats. Rudy Giuliani is also consistently ahead, but to a lesser extent. But does this really tell us who will win the nominations?

As I've said many times before, no. It doesn't. As in previous years, the winner of the early state caucuses and primaries will determine who gets each nomination. Iowa goes first, and they haven't decided. In fact, they won't for awhile, if history is any indication:
Consider this: More than two-thirds of the Democrats who voted in the 2004 Iowa caucuses didn't decide who to vote for until a month before the caucuses. Four in 10 decided in the last week. In 2004, 54% of New Hampshire Democrats decided within a week of the primary. It's no surprise, then, that in the 2004 election, John Kerry was lagging in third place until only a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Kerry then more than doubled his vote in Iowa and nearly quadrupled it in New Hampshire — all in less than 20 days.

Iowa's Republican caucus-goers are no different. In 1996, nearly a quarter chose their candidate on caucus night or in the preceding two days; fully 42% decided in the last 10 days. And in New Hampshire, only 12% of Republicans decided in 2000 who they would support in the primary before Jan. 1 of election year.
And as this L.A. Times article points out, nationals polls used as measurement can ultimately render their own findings inaccurate because of the effect they have on the race:
...the measurements themselves, printed in bold type on Page 1, create their own distorted results, inaccurately advantaging some while disadvantaging others. By creating a potentially illusory sense of momentum or of failure, these pseudo-measures affect the extent of media coverage, fundraising, endorsements and the willingness of volunteers to engage.

The result is a cycle. Early national polling is used to declare winners and losers. Those declarations affect the flow of money and coverage, which is then reported as winners and losers, part two, thereby driving the next polls.

In 2003, this cycle nearly buried Kerry.

Let's face it: While money in the bank, a strong organization, a capable staff and a compelling message will be vital next year when early-primary-state voters start deciding, trying to measure the variables now, for a campaign that for most hasn't even started yet, can lead to a net loss of knowledge.
I actually recently wrote a paper on this. The media's obsession with the horse-race aspect of campaigns (which has grown increasingly worse each election cycle) actually affects the campaign and becomes self-perpetuating. This might be good for front runners and help candidates like Clinton or Giuliani solidify their leads, or it might raise expectations so high for one candidate that a single loss can completely destroy a campaign (Howard Dean in '04).

Either way, the media and the pundits should shut their big mouths until January. They should focus on where the candidates stand on the issues and inform voters about the choice they will have to make instead of reporting on who may or may not be leading. Maybe then they'd actually have a positive impact on the race.

UPDATE: Btw, 72% of voters would favor a proposal to shorten the presidential campaign season so that no one could begin campaigning more than a year before election day. On a related note, Al Gore can still get in!

1 comment:

Alexander Wolfe said...

We can dream. Columnists and journalists who follow politics closely treat it like a game. Their coverage consists almost solely of "gotcha" moments where candidates' supposed mist-steps are made great hay of, analyzing of narratively convenient polls (and ignoring inconvenient ones), using money as the primary indicator of future success, and analyzing the candidates "issue" statements only to the extent that they either do or fail to comport with the supposed beliefs of "the people" without actually providing enough info to those watching or reading to allow them to know whether or not a candidate is being honest. I don't imagine that'll change anytime soon, despite the fact that voters, analysts and hundreds of thousands of bloggers wish it to.